U.S. Ambassador Calls for Iraq to Form Unity Government
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GWEN IFILL: Mr. Ambassador, welcome. We want to start tonight by talking to you about the latest wave of violence we are hearing and reading about, roadside bomb, improvised devices, kidnappings, bombings. Does this impede what you have been trying to attempt as far as the political turnover in Iraq?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, this should incentivize the leaders to form a government of national unity as soon as possible because much of the violence here is cross-sectarian. The fundamental problem of Iraq is that the various communities are polarized along ethic and sectarian lines. That is producing some of the conflicts and attacks that you referred to. Iraqis voted but they voted, unfortunately, along sectarian lines. And to deal with this problem, they need to form a national unity government, and that’s what we are encouraging.
GWEN IFILL: They’re talking about this national unity government. Secretary Rice today, traveling in Egypt, said Iraqis are struggling, and you yourself said yesterday in talking about this need for a unity government that the United States, in your own words were “not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian.”
You seem to be making the link between the United States financial support and this need for a unity government.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: What I was saying was that what we do will be influenced by what the Iraqis decide. And we will do everything we can to help them make the right decision, a national unity government that has a good program to deal with Iraq’s security challenges, the challenges of providing services for the Iraqi people, and to have ministers that are competent, particularly security ministers who are nonsectarian, who are not tied to militias, and will govern Iraq from the center, and if they don’t make the right choices then we in turn will look at what we do, and people cannot assume that we will continue to provide the support that we have financially and otherwise if they don’t make the right choice.
GWEN IFILL: It sounds like a threat, Mr. Ambassador.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, it’s stating the obvious, that they have the right to make their own decisions. Iraq is a sovereign country, and what I have said is not anything new. I have stated this before. Iraq needs the help of the international community, the help of the United States, the American taxpayers work very hard to pay their taxes. They expect their money to be used effectively.
And as far as the security forces are concerned, we are investing billions of dollars into the police program, to the building of the national army. And if they are not run by people who are nonsectarian, not tied to militias, not moderate, not broadly accepted, the forces would not be effective, and, therefore, we are advising them to do the right thing, and if they don’t, we will take a look at what we do.
GWEN IFILL: So if the outcomes of the democratic elections that you pursue result in an outcome, say a sectarian government that you do not prefer, the United States withdraws its support?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I don’t anticipate that that will happen. I think they will listen to our advice because what we are suggesting is in the interest of Iraq. That’s what the Iraqi people want. I’ve seen multiple opinion surveys that show that. The Iraqis want security. Iraqis want services. No single party or coalition has the majority.
They need to come together across sectarian and ethnic lines, and the sectarian tensions, as I said before, are the fundamental problem, challenge of Iraq, and national unity government, a program that brings Iraqis together, that governs from the center, is what is needed. And I anticipate that that’s what we will get.
GWEN IFILL: Prime minister al-Jaafari’s response to you was kind of harsh. He said we do not need to be reminded. So, if that’s true, what’s happening now that makes you feel that you must put such a point on this reminder?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I was glad to hear the prime minister say that, that he supports the idea of a national unity government, that he supports that these ministries be nonsectarian. I welcome that commitment. And what I was stating — and I’m stating again tonight — is that these ministries have to be run by nonsectarian, broadly acceptable, not tied to militia moderate people who can serve the Iraqi people, and that’s what we seek. That’s what we advise, and that’s what we will work for.
GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the Iraqi ministries, in particular the Iraqi interior ministry. There have been many reports lately that they may have had a hand in these death squads, which have been accused of rounding up Sunnis, executing them, and doing it under cover of government approval. Is that what has caused some of your concerns?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, recently, our forces did capture a few people from the transportation police, traffic police, four of whom are in our custody right now. And they had a Sunni man with them, and they’ve confessed that they were going to kill him. We are investigating that. And I’m going to turn over that file of our investigation over to the prime minister in the next couple of days.
GWEN IFILL: There’s a mid-May deadline for the formation of this government. Of course we saw the elections a couple of months ago. Are we at a political deadlock stage right now?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, no, I mean, the certified results of the election came out only a few days ago, right after the results were certified, the biggest bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, that Prime Minister Jaafari is a member of, nominated him to — for the post of prime minister.
That’s what the constitution calls for. Now, there is discussions going on across parties and coalitions about the formation of a national unity government, who should be the constituent elements of a national unity government about a program, about the process, and about people, all of which is important for Iraq’s success.
It will take a little bit of time to deal with all of these issues. I think we ought to be patient with them. The formation of this national unity government is the single most important issue, I cannot overemphasize it, for affecting the future of Iraq, for bringing reaction together, for bridging the sectarian and ethnic gap that bedevils Iraq at the present time. It will take time, but I think the issues they are dealing with are very important, and as I said before, we’re prepared to help in any way we can.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about Iran. Do you think that they are meddling in this process?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, Iran is an important neighbor of Iraq. Iran has at least a two-track policy on the one hand, in terms of state-to-state relations. Iran is supporting the government in Iraq.
And, on the other hand, parts of the Iranian government, some of its institutions, are providing assistance to extremist groups, to militias, and are being unhelpful to Iraq in this difficult transition that the country is going through.
GWEN IFILL: Last time we spoke on this program you said that Secretary Rice had essential essentially authorized you to have some conversations with Iran, to try to see if you could reach out, work out some sort of agreeable deal. Whatever became of those conversations?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Right. Well, that — I did make that offer. The president and the secretary did authorize that we could converse with the Iranians with regard to the situation in Iraq.
I used to have those conversations with the Iranian ambassador when I was ambassador to Afghanistan. The offer is still on the table. The Iranians have communicated some things with regard to it. We’re going back and forth on that, and I would like to leave it at that, at the present time.
GWEN IFILL: You have suggested in published interviews that you believe that Iran might be inserting itself in this process in Iraq in part to distract the international community from scrutinizing too closely Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Could you expand on that?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, yeah.
A few days ago, the Iranian foreign minister, surprisingly, while in Beirut, stated that the British troops should leave the Iraqi city of Basra. I think that that intervention by Iran was uncalled for.
The issue of the presence of the coalition forces here is at the invitation of the Iraqi government, to ask for the extension of the U.N. mandate for these forces, and I think Iran is coming under international pressure from the international community because of the nuclear issue, and it’s getting itself involved in the issue, such as Basra. Basra is not part of Iran; it’s part of Iraq. And, frankly, the presence of the British forces there is none of Iran’s business.
GWEN IFILL: It sounds like you have several hurdles ahead of you, not only Iran’s role in it, whether you can yourself engage them, also, what the British role is. Obviously, they’re standing by you in Basra as this continues, but also what the Shiites are willing to accept or not accept, what the Sunnis are willing to accept, not accept, what the Kurds are willing to accept and not accept. Can you get to the bottom of any of this in time for this mid-May deadline?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Oh, I think so. When do you something as important as what we are trying to do in Iraq, take an authoritarian government, replace it by a process for democratic order, which involves state and nation building, which involves countering terror, and it is also in a very difficult neighborhood; it’s not easy. But then, nothing very important is ever easy.
And success in Iraq will have huge positive implications for the future of this region and the future of this region is extremely important for the future of the world, for the security of the American people. So, yes, this is difficult. Yes, this is hard. There are big challenges, but I think we don’t have a good alternative but to do the best we can to succeed, and I’m confident that with patience, with flexibility, and agility, we can succeed in Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you very much for joining us.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, it’s good to talk with you again.